Abraham Bers, 1930 – 2015

I was saddened to hear that my PhD thesis advisor at MIT, Professor Abraham Bers, passed away last week at the age of 85. Abe was a fantastic physicist and mentor. He will be dearly missed by his many students. I showed up at MIT in the fall of 1986 with the intent of doing experimental particle physics. I took Abe’s plasma physics course as a breadth requirement for my degree. When I began, I didn’t know what a plasma was but by the end of the term I had joined his group. Abe was one of the best teachers I have ever had. His lectures exemplified his extremely clear and insightful mind. I still consult the notes from his classes from time to time.

Abe also had a great skill in finding the right problem for students. I struggled to get started doing research but one day Abe came to my desk with this old Russian book and showed me a figure. He said that it didn’t make sense according to the current theory and asked me to see if I could understand it. Somehow, this lit a spark in me and pursuing that little puzzle resulted in my first three papers. However, Abe also realized, even before I did I think, that I actually liked applied math better than physics. Thus, after finishing these papers and building some command in the field, he suggested that I completely switch my focus to nonlinear dynamics and chaos, which was very hot at the time. This turned out to be the perfect thing for me and it also made me realize that I could always change fields. I have never been afraid of going outside of my comfort zone since. I am always thankful for the excellent training I received at MIT.

The most eventful experience of those days was our weekly group meetings. These were famous no holds barred affairs where the job of the audience was to try to tear down everything the presenter said. I would prepare for a week to get ready when it was my turn. I couldn’t even get through the first slide my first time but by the time I graduated, nothing could faze me. Although the arguments could get quite heated at times, Abe never lost his cool. He would also come to my office after a particularly bad presentation to cheer me up. I don’t ever have any stress when giving talks or speaking in public now because I know that there could never be a sharper or tougher audience than Abe.

To me, Abe will always represent the gentleman scholar to which I’ve always aspired. He was always impeccably dressed with his tweed jacket, Burberry trench coat, and trademark bow tie. Well before good coffee became de rigueur in the US, Abe was a connoisseur and kept his coffee in a freezer in his office. He led a balanced life. He took work very seriously but also made sure to have time for his family and other pursuits. I visited him at MIT a few years ago and he was just as excited about what he was doing then as he was when I was a graduate student. Although he is gone, he will not be forgotten. The book he had been working on, Plasma Waves and Fusion, will be published this fall. I will be sure to get a copy as soon as it comes out.

2015-9-16: Here is a link to his MIT obituary.

One thought on “Abraham Bers, 1930 – 2015

  1. very nice and interesting essay. i hadn’t heard of bers. i had thought you went to toronto (C J Lumsden was there—he gave me his book with e o wilson on ‘genes mind and culture’ —wilson is know for sociobiology, ants, and his article with d s wilson on kin selection in QRB and i stayed with ds but never mailed in my application– i wanted the 50$ —- http://www.blog.oup.com/2015/01/kin-group-selection-controversy someone named yaneer bar-yam http://www.necsi.edu who i met put this in PNAS—scooped me but he nows his stuff and i dont. wasnt nice person to me ) but i guess that was undergrad.

    only connection i have to MIT is i used G Strang’s book on linear algebra which was quite good tho prof tried to flunk me since i only took exams and didnt go to class, and have read alot of http://www.chomsky.info (i dont believe his innate grammar theory—i’m with the connectionists—hinton rumelhart, s kirby, m christiansen and more–there is a whole web site on this with working papers which i cant remember—see also ‘the linguistics wars’ or ‘linguistic nativism and poverty of the stimulus’ by alexander clark and shalom lappin. ). or alexander clark — chomsky doesnt like this guy—


    my niece is 2nd year undergrad at MIT.tho i dont know what she wants to do. she just got back from summer in singapore, thailand, and vermont.

    i also found the wallet of a history prof there (louis menand (rip)—his son writes for new yorker (‘the metaphysical club’) and teaches at harvard now) once when he was staying across from me. they knew who to ask. i said i found it and didnt get a reward either.

    i may sign up to niaa at nih due to substance abuse. i just got the emails and phone mssgs to call back.

    i sortuh already know what a plasma is so could mit mail me a PhD? see ‘the plasma universe’ on wikipedia. also http://www.ejtp.com/latest.html (‘from quantum mechanics to intelligence’ — u have to start somewhere—- or eVen better ‘the big bang never happened —eric lerner). h Kleinert is on the board of EJTP tho alot of what is in there may not pass muster.


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